Thursday, November 18, 2010

New FSN advocacy group connects and speaks out ... online

The November issue of State Magazine has quite a spread on Foreign Service Nationals (also known as LES or Locally Engaged Staff).  First, Director General Nancy Powell writes a public thank you in her column and about forthcoming changes/plans in HR's Overseas Employment office (see State Magazine, November 2010 p.2

"I would like to say a special thank you to our 53,000 Locally Employed Staff serving around the world. These dedicated men and women perform many critical tasks and generously share their experience and wisdom with their American colleagues. Let me share with you some of the things we are working on in Washington that relate to our loyal and talented LE Staff. We are taking a fresh look at how the Office of Overseas Employment is organized.

This is the office that has a direct impact on issues that affect LE Staff the most. In February, we hired consultants to examine staffing levels, organization and salary survey processes in Overseas Employment. Our goal is to ensure that our LE colleagues receive competitive compensation for their contributions to our missions. That is why we asked a consulting group, expert in global compensation, to examine the Department of State’s LE Staff compensation methodology. They have concluded their six-month study, and we expect planned improvements to take effect in fiscal year 2012."
Deborah Hunsley writes LE Staff Advocates | HR/OE manages overseas employment (see November 2010 p.38
"American law requires that U.S. embassies’ local compensation packages be established in accordance with locally prevailing practice. Therefore, LE Staff compensation is based on a locality’s cost of labor and not the cost of living. While the U.S. government cannot be seen as paying too much or too little, American embassies are typically seen as competitive employers.
Worldwide, less than 2 percent of embassy LE Staff quit to seek better employment or higher salaries. HR/OE analyzes 178 different compensation plans each year to ensure that mission salaries and benefits are in sync with local labor markets. Salary increases beyond employees’ annual performance-based within-grade increases arise from these analyses but are subject to the availability of funds in each mission’s yearly budget."
We like that part about "less than  2% of embassy LE staff quit" item but not so sure how reliable is the number when you're also patting yourself in the back.  Here are some FSN attrition numbers by geographic areas from the OIG:

In any case, we've wondered if this is mere coincidence or if there is something else in the works here ...

Turns out, it might be both - certainly the magazine has its own editorial calendar, but then apparently something has also been in the works for the past year ... 

Heard of IFSA or the International Foreign Service Association?  It is a non-profit organization "representing the professional and personal interests of the Foreign Service Nationals (also called Locally Engaged Staff) working in the foreign diplomatic Missions of the United States."

According to its website, it has three stated core objectives:
  • to protect the interests and the rights of the locally engaged staff on a worldwide basis and to be a communication channel through which the locally engaged staff can engage into a permanent dialogue with the foreign affairs agencies in Washington.
  • represent employees who take deep pride in working for United States government offices engaged in the front line of the effort to improve America’s bilateral and multilateral relationships with other nations around the world. It seeks to ensure that America’s Foreign Affairs agencies are exemplary in terms of sound administration, so that they enjoy the utmost credibility with staff and public alike.
  • to improve staff morale, better working conditions, and strengthen the relationship of the locally engaged staff within the foreign affairs community.

In November last year, the group wrote a letter to the new Director General, Nancy Powell. Excerpt below:
At virtually every diplomatic post, Locally Employed Staff significantly outnumber our Foreign Service and Civil Service colleagues. We are the State Department’s largest group of employees with 38,000 positions compared to 11,000 Foreign Service and 9,000 Civil Service employees. Worldwide, over 56,000 LES serve the Department of State and other U.S. government agencies. And yet, as noted by the Office of the Inspector General, Locally Employed Staff are the only group that cannot turn to a body which represents them and speaks on their behalf in Washington. (OIG Report No. ISO-I-07-16 – May 2007).

We hope that in the future IFSA will play a representative and advocacy role for LES similar to that which AFSA provides for Foreign Service Officers. We realize that there are differences. We agree with the principle that LES compensation plans should be based on locally prevailing practice, and accept the resulting diversity in salaries and benefits around the world. There are, however, a number of important management and structural issues related to overseas employment which are clearly of common concern to LES worldwide. LES seek a voice in decisions on global personnel policies and practices with a view to improving working conditions, increasing transparency, promoting FAM compliance and protecting basic rights in the workplace.
As a first step, IFSA looks forward to playing a constructive role in the implementation of two important recent OIG recommendations – the drafting of a bill of rights for LES employees, and the creation of a locally employed staff ombudsman position in Washington.
Locally Employed Staff (LES) of the United States Department of State are proud of the essential support we provide to U.S. diplomacy around the world. We work every day to ensure continuity of operations, facilitate interactions with the local community and to make the lives of diplomats easier as they represent the United States. We have a deep and abiding respect for the country we serve and the principles of transparency and representation which underlie American democracy. IFSA and its member associations are truly excited about working with your office to formalize a constructive working relationship with the Department of State and other Foreign Affairs Agencies.

The letter was signed by FSNs Eddy Olislaeger, a Public Diplomacy Specialist at the U.S. Embassy, Brussels, Belgium and Wendy Lubetkin, Senior Advisor on Media Affairs at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland.

Not surprising that this effort is spearheaded by two media folks.  The full text of the letter is available here.
On October 14, 2010, under the headline "State Department does not wish to recognize IFSA," the group posted in its blog the following:
"Latest development in the saga of IFSA requesting recognition by the State Department. On September 20, 2010 Deputy Assistant Secretary Robert Manzanares sent the following letter to the “leadership of the International Foreign Service Association (IFSA)”. This is State’s response to IFSA’s third request to be recognized as a representative of the Locally Engaged Staff on a worldwide basis. HR/OE posted the letter on several internal web sites."

Below is an excerpt from a letter the Director General's DAS J. Robert Manzanares reportedly sent to the group and posted with the above entry:
September 20, 2010

Mr. Olislaeger,

I'd like to take this opportunity to respond to your letter of July 15, 2010 and to your latest e-mail messages.

Rereading your letter, I realize that we share many of the same goals as you have outlined, and we have much in common. It is very much in the U.S. Governmentís interests to have an on-going dialogue with LE Staff to retain a trusting relationship and promote mutual understanding.
I am pleased to report we will also soon begin to communicate the Department's efforts to modernize the LE Staff compensation analysis following an extensive review of the Department's practices by a leading international consultant. Planned refinements will be communicated through post visits, and by using multimedia methods such as webinars, DVCs and teleconferencing to explain the LE Staff compensation process. As a result of efforts this past year, HR/OE and the HR Bureau have addressed all formal HR assigned recommendations relating to LE Staff compensation in the 2009 Report by the Congressional managed Office of the Inspector General. While these were recommendations, and not mandates by the Office of Inspector General, we certainly worked to address issues raised in this report. Much more will be communicated in FY 11 including new compensation data collection and analysis software applications, the planned use of additional sources of labor market wage information, and several other enhancements in implementation stages.
Embassies and consulates work under very different laws and circumstances than the private sector firms we compete with for qualified labor. They must abide by the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations. As a result, governance of our missions complies with these worldwide tenants which are applicable to the diplomatic missions of every nation in the world. It was based on this international Convention that a recent law suit to allow embassy employees to unionize was denied, and found in the favor of the diplomatic mission, and against the unions bringing the lawsuit. [DS - tenants? tenants? did he mean tenets?]

Similarly, Chief of Mission authority, based on U.S. congressional law and annual instructions from the U.S. President, gives the Chief of Mission full responsibility for the direction, coordination, and supervision of all U.S. Government executive branch employees including Foreign Nationals. These are historic and long-standing principals of international diplomacy. This is also why a previous OIG recommendation to create an Ombudsman for LE Staff was determined to be in violation of Chief of Mission authority.(DS - long-standing principals? what are they? did he mean long standing principles?)
In response to the Haiti crisis and other post circumstances this past year, the Director General recently delegated approval to posts to extend two specific LE Staff benefits to missions overseas which we will explain in a future cable from the Director General. These enhancements include provisions to extend medical coverage to dependents included in post medical plans in the event of an employee's death; and allowing 26 pay periods to use compensatory time earned, which will become effective in March 2011 when Charleston payroll systems are modified to accommodate this change.

You can read the entire letter here

Would be nice to have a simple English translation of what he really is telling the locally employed staff  -- the "dedicated men and women [who] perform many critical tasks and generously share their experience and wisdom with their American colleagues" who are much appreciated by everybody, also.

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